INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN SURFACE OF GENERIS GALLERY
Under what conditions is collaboration not possible?
Collaboration is impossible when there is an immutable vertical power imbalance between anyone involved. We might all be working together, sharing credit, making things happen, or contributing, but that isn’t collaboration.
When we look at a forest, the first thing we see are the trees, individually striving to reach the light. What we don’t see is the massive mychorrhizal network underneath our feet. While fungal networks cannot produce their own food, they are nonetheless responsible for distributing resources and information throughout the forest: they are the mediators that help the other plants to work together. What and/or who mediates collaboration, and what are its effects on the process?
This raises my concerns and ongoing internal dialogue about collaboration. I love taking every chance for artists to build each other up.
Yet I struggle to reach out to collaborators sometimes, asking people to commit their valuable time, labor, intellects, and emotional, material and financial resources to something. When you’re socialized as a cis woman, you learn to take care of everyone’s needs before your own. It’s a way of teaching people to stay in line, so we internalize “no” and cut ourselves off before we ever try to do anything. I’ve grown a lot with folks in the disability and queer & trans people of color communities, like Sins Invalid, Nomy Lamm, and Kay Ulanday Barrett. They show how it’s a form of strength, not only a sign of weakness, to be able to ask for help and support when you need it. When you go at other people as a collaborator instead of eyeing them as competitors, you can be assured that you’re held up by a community that cares and will provide, who trusts that you will contribute too in the way and degree to which you’re able, when and if you’re able.
It’s both positive and negative how “collaboration” can be a tactic for risk management. I worry about my own motives, and check myself to see if I’m trying to mitigate individual responsibility out of fear – and if so, whether the fear is justified or if it is ridiculous. The formation of collectives, especially anonymous ones, in order to do “risky or experimental” work, can be either absolutelynecessary or a questionable device to avoid confrontation and/or draw attention to yourself, depending on why it’s done.
It’s necessary for people of color, women, low income people, and others on the margins to take credit for our own contributions and ideas, instead of being subsumed into undifferentiated, anonymized masses. At the same time, beware of the pressure to assimilate to the ideal of heroic rugged individualism. Always negotiate that balance. It’s very zen in that it’s possible to be self-contained, growing your inner world, because you recognize you’re part of a vast, interconnected living system, the forest and the trees.
What are you hoping your collaborator(s) leave behind?
How does that which is left unsaid permeate the nature of collaboration and how that collaboration works?
The action of leaving things unsaid indicates a trust and respect for others’ motives and intellects. It invites intellectual engagement/interpretation, and positions the audience as collaborator.
Editor’s Note: This interview was wrongly attributed to Mary Coyne of Pseudo Empire Gallery; it is actually with Susan Surface of Generis Gallery in Brooklyn.